The Entombment (1612)
by Peter Paul Rubens
public domain

Holy Saturday, Matthew 27:57-66

Historical Description:

Peter Paul Rubens was a 17th century Flemish painter best known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces. Painting from his home studio in Antwerp, he created paintings for the nobility and for art collectors.

His painting The Entombment, painted in 1612, highlights the horror of Christ’s crucifixion. The paleness of Christ highlighted by a green hue coupled with the dried blood on the side indicates some time has passed since the death of Christ. This piece was most likely intended as an altarpiece for celebrating the Eucharist, noted by the altar-like slab Christ is laid on as well as the sheaf of wheat lying underneath him.

Devotional Reflection:

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has hundreds of paintings from the life of Christ. Images depicting the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary with child, and the Adoration of the Magi are common. Many artists have spent their time giving viewers a glimpse of the beauty from the life of Christ; however, equally as common are the portraits from the Crucifixion, Pieta, and Entombment of Christ. These moments give artists an opportunity to paint the raw emotion of the death of Christ in a way that resonates with the viewer. Peter Paul Rubens painted the entombment of Christ in such a way as to lead the viewer into prayer.

Matthew’s account of the burial of Jesus is a solemn but short affair. Joseph of Arimathea wraps the body of Jesus in a clean shroud, places him in the tomb, and leaves, as the women watch on in sadness. The scene at the tomb is a deeply moving scene, the sad conclusion to an emotional day. Yet, for those who read it, it can pass by so quickly. Five short verses and we have moved from evening to the next day. Anyone who has ever grieved knows that time never goes that fast in mourning. Instead, it seems to stop and leaves one wondering if the next day will ever come. How do we fill those endless moments of grief? By gathering our burdens and carrying them to God in prayer.

In Rubens’ painting, those who are mourning carry a burden, the body of Jesus. The loss of their Lord. John holds the head of Jesus, peering down on his Lord in sadness. Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Cleopas are in the background, one holds his extended arm and looks at his wounds in quiet grief. Mary, the mother of our Lord, however, is different. She seems overwhelmed by sadness to the point of death.  Rubens, in fact, painted her in the same deathly color of Jesus and the viewer is reminded that, as prophesied, a sword pierced her heart that day. Yet, as the other three look down upon Jesus, Mary looks up to heaven. The burden of death weighs her down, but faith in God lifts her up. She turns to God for comfort and help. Just as the body of Jesus is open toward heaven so too the death of Jesus has opened the heavens so that in the midst of sadness, Mary can turn to God, her only help in time of need.

Mary trusted in God even in her darkest hour. Looking to heaven, pleading for God to answer her in her need, she trusted in God and his promises in her time of trial. This body of Christ, which she holds so dearly, was offered up to open the way to the throne of God. There, the answers to prayer are found in Jesus. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). He was offered up as an answer to our prayer for help, and he is able to help those who turn to him in time of need. Mary looked up to heaven in time of grief, knowing that God would hear and answer her prayer, giving her exactly what she needed.

In our lives, we carry the burden of death. We are weighed down by grief, pain, uncertainty, and every form of sadness. And in those moments, when suffering bears us down, faith bears us up.  Faith turns our eyes to heaven.  Like Mary in this painting, the words of King David before us, offer encouragement to prayer:  “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).  The God who created the heavens and earth looks down in mercy upon his people.  Jesus in his death looks up to the throne of God.  He invites us, in our darkest times, to join Mary in looking up and entrusting our burdens to the Lord. Our help has come from the heavens and our help will come again, in glory from the heavens.  Until that time, when we are burdened, we turn to God in prayer.

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